By Raymond Onyango.

Every single military force, everywhere in the world relies on the Push Up as the gold standard of strength, fitness and combat readiness. The reasons are simple  – push-ups are effective and they can be done anywhere, at anytime, with nothing other than your own body weight for a prop. This is important because in a war situation, you don’t have access to a gym’ – your entire exercise program has to be built around portable body weight based exercises that deliver great results, in minimum time, with no need for external equipment.

The push up fits this bill perfectly because it is a very compound exercise, one that directly challenges the key muscles of the chest (pectorals) shoulders (deltoids) arms (triceps) and upper back (rhomboids) not to mention a host of synergists including the muscles of the trunk and legs which play a major role in stabilizing your body through out the execution of the exercise. In fact so effective is the Push Up, that if performed alongside its twin sibling, the Pull up, virtually every single muscle group in the upper body would be comprehensively addressed without the need for any other additional exercises.

The key to unlocking the maximum benefits of the push up lie in performing the exercise correctly. A brief lesson in physics will help you get more bang for your buck. All movement in the body is produced through a system of levers (bones and muscles), which work together to produce coordinated action. These levers fall into different classes –

1st class levers, where the axis is placed between the force and the resistance, e.g. a children’s seesaw.

2nd class levers where the resistance is between the axis and the force e.g. a wheelbarrow

3rd class levers where the force is placed between the axis and the resistance e.g. using a shovel to scoop some sand or a fishing rod to catch some fish.

The push up as an exercise operates as a second-class lever. One of the defining characteristics of a second class lever is that it allows you to move a large amount of resistance with a relatively small amount of force – this is simply a fancy way of saying that 2nd class levers work at a mechanical advantage – which would explain that a load too heavy to lift by hand can be easily moved on a wheelbarrow (a perfect example of 2nd class lever at work).

Because you are working at a mechanical advantage, your muscles can easily adapt to this exercise and you will hit a plateau, unless you find creative ways to add an edge to the exercise. To this end there are 4 critical factors that have a direct impact on the Push Up exercise in terms of increasing its efficiency and modifying its level of difficulty to suit your individual physical abilities.

1. Length of the Lever – One of the main reasons why beginners are advised to perform Push Ups on their knees (as opposed to their tip toes) is because this simple action shortens the lever arm and therefore reduces the amount of torque incurred by the prime movers (in this case your chest and triceps) thereby making the movement a little easier. Because your body weight remains constant, leverage is the one facility you can use to increase or decrease the level of intensity of the push up, to great effect.

The same push up, performed on the tiptoes, will prove to be a much more difficult undertaking (longer lever arm). If you go ahead and prop your feet up on a chair, the movement gets even harder. In this way both a 75-year-old senior citizen and a 23-year-old college basketball player can get the maximum out of the exercise, each working at their respective levels of physical ability. You will be hard-pressed to find and exercise as versatile and adaptable as the simple push up.

2. Range Of Motion – Another way in which to directly influence the effectiveness of the Push Up is to play around with the range of motion. Range of motion, with respect to the push up refers to the depth to which you perform the push up. Push Ups performed through a partial range of motion, where the shoulders do not drop below the elbows are infinitely easier than push ups performed though a full range of motion, where the chest is dropped below the elbows, to within an inch or two of the floor. In the beginning you may want to regulate your range of motion to reflect your abilities, as you strength improves and you would be well advised to increase the range of motion in order to keep triggering adaptation from your muscles in the way of improved muscle tone and overall strength.

3. Speed of Movement – My favorite kind of push up is what I call the 10-second push up. Four seconds down- a two second isometric hold at the bottom – followed by a 4 second ascent back to the top of the movement. The effect of this is to remove all momentum from the exercise, and believe me it is not easy. You will be lucky if you can get 10 good push ups this way, but you will also see much quicker progress, and much shorter workouts.

The direct opposite of the 10 second push up is the Hand clap Push up, the idea here being to push yourself up from the bottom of the movement, with sufficiently explosive force, enough to pick your hand off the floor and clap audibly before your next rep. This is advanced stuff and should never be attempted by the newly initiated recreational exercise enthusiast. For those with the physical conditioning to pull it off, it adds a plyometric element to the push up, which will build you more power than Mike Tyson in his prime.

4. Balance & Coordination – The ultimate Push Up, that sets the men apart from the boys, is the One handed Push Up. I have met in my entire life only one man who was able to do these competently and I may never meet another  – that is how hard they are. By simply lifting one arm or one foot off the floor, you can massively increase the degree of challenge proffered by the push up. There are several ways I which you can do this, Including variations of the push up, such as the push up – row, or the push up with a twist or the one-legged push up.  All of extraordinarily challenge your balance and coordination, bringing a whole new dimension to this age-old classic of an exercise.

Have a great week will you!

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